Snapshots: Day 86

Snapshots: Day 86

The Snapshot: “it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you.” (Lev 1:4) How can killing a cow or a sheep make atonement, and what does atonement mean and do I need it? Some have suggested at-one-ment i.e. being made one with God again after a division caused by my sin. Synonyms are ‘compensation, amends, punishment’. This animal will be accepted by God to make up for my sins? However I see it, it is God saying by doing this one thing, I can take it that He accepts me back. But I feel bad about this animal dying for me? Accept it, it’s just a picture of what my Son will do for you one day. Your action will indicate your repentance and your obedience; that is enough, that is what this is all about.

Further Consideration: As we continue our slow progress through the Bible, the great temptation is to omit Leviticus because it seems at first sight to be so obscure in the light of today’s world – and messy. Yet we need to remember this was part of the Law given to Moses by God for Israel at that time and acted as part of the foundation of their lives as a godly community.  Some of the Law was about the priesthood but that was partly to support the expressions of activity laid out in the early chapters of Leviticus that we may summarise as ways of getting right with God after personal failure.

Living in a world as we do, where personal failure is simply something we quickly cover up but fail to deal with properly (so guilt remains and a vulnerability to repetition), it is difficult to grasp the simplicity of purpose found in the early chapters of Leviticus.

Our tendency is to avoid talking about our failures and pretending they didn’t happen, or to make excuses for them. God’s method is to openly confront them, not to leave us feeling guilty failures but to be left with a sense of resolution, that the failure (sin) has been properly dealt with before Him and so we will not have a constant feeling that He may yet be coming after us for it. The Bible is the best counselor on the planet. Instead of months of costly therapy, God declares the way to deal with guilt. For the embryonic nation of Israel it was to bring an offering, a sacrifice to the Tabernacle and to kill it before the priest. The shock of taking a life would impact the person offering it and convey a sense of the awfulness of sin but would leave them with the memory of an experience they had been through that left them clean and their sin dealt with before God so there would be no further likelihood of repercussions because of it.

Today you and I trust that Jesus is our sacrifice, when he died on the Cross and so when we “confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9)

27. Redeemed From (3)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 27. Redeemed From (3)

Eph 2:1-3    As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.

Following ‘Passion’?  I’m never quite comfortable with our interpretation of Paul’s words in verse 3 above even with, “We all lived like that in the past, and followed the impulses and imaginations of our evil nature,” (JBP version) and even less with, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat,” (Message version), or “All of us used to be just as they are, our lives expressing the evil within us, doing every wicked thing that our passions or our evil thoughts might lead us into.” (Living Bible). What these various paraphrase versions show us is that we struggle with the idea that Paul is seeking to convey here. Now when you look up synonyms for ‘passion’ you do come across such words as craving, desire, or appetite. The various paraphrases above also use such words as ‘impulses’ and ‘felt’, both implying responses to feelings.

Going on feelings? Christian preachers or teachers often say ‘don’t go on your feelings’ and that is what this is all about, but when Paul says in the NIV “gratifying the cravings of the flesh” he is implying something more than just feelings; he is directing us towards thinking about desires that stem from physical or bodily expressions so, for example, we get hungry because we haven’t eaten for a while. Sexual drive can also be linked to physical state. Now psychologists often distinguish ‘desire’ from ‘emotions’ for ‘emotions’, they say, arise from a person’s emotional state.

So we have two ideas here which come out of Paul’s writings: motivation by physical gratification and motivation by mental state, and both of these, implies Paul, are things that should be consigned to past history. However our studies in redemption have suggested that so often God’s work in us has to be an ongoing process because, although our identity has changed, and we now also have a new power source, it is so easy to allow these things of the past to still ‘echo’ in the present and hence Paul had to instruct us to Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” (Col 3:5) i.e. you make an effort, an act of will to do this. The teaching is clearly that the old is still there waiting to rear up and we have to positively put it down.   Now when we moved into the fifth Part, I thought of our sub-heading as ‘Practicalities’ but changed it to ‘Nuts & Bolts of Redemption’. These things, the nuts and bolts of our lives, have very practical outworkings in our lives.

Physical Desires: We shy away from such words as ‘greed’ or ‘gluttony’ but they are words that fit when it comes to physical appetites. However, as Christians, perhaps we should call a spade a spade and call these things ‘lack of self-control’. Food: Obesity is the Western pandemic and is clearly (in the vast majority of cases) a consequence of lack of self-control. But that lack of self-control may have two origins. First, it may just be giving way to greed: I like this and I want more and more and more. Second, it may be what we call ‘comfort eating’, it is a way we deal with mental anguishes (I feel rubbish about me) and seek to bring physical pleasure to compensate for the loss of mental peace.  The first needs simple self-control, the second needs a reality check about identity, realizing afresh the truth about ourselves, loved by God and special to Him, people with purpose in life. All of these things need working through and really taking on board.

Drink: So far we have been considering desires that focus on food, but they can equally apply (if not more so) to alcohol. Now I don’t have a problem with drinking alcohol within limits (though I rarely drink) but I am sure there is a common assumption (and it appears in Christian circles) that alcohol creates a social environment that promotes sociability. There may be an element of truth in that but there are at least two difficulties with it. First, it is false that you cannot be sociable without alcohol and if for you it is true, then you have a personal identity problem again. Second, regular drinking (‘to be sociable’) becomes a pattern and a pattern often develops into a bondage and that brings about what we call alcoholism and all the health and social problems that go with that. In passing, may I note that in all these sorts of things there is so often deception here, for the individual strongly denies that there is a problem, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of sex.

Sex: All of these things we consider here, that God is seeking to lead us away from, are excesses of things that He gave us as a gift to be used within confines. Sex, the Bible reveals, is for within a lifetime committed relationship. Now I am aware that when we say that in the Western world it is like calling for light in darkness, it is so alien, but merely because the world casts off God’s design criteria, that should not be true of us Christians. It is almost impossible to watch TV without being bombarded by the philosophy that sex is all right with whoever you like, whenever you like, and however you like, and becomes no more significant than eating a cheese sandwich. The result is to debase sex and create whole rafts of relationship problems and where to speak of love is banned except after the relationship based on sex has existed for a long time (watch long running historical ‘soaps’ such as ‘Friends’ or ‘Big Bang Theory’ to see the truth of this.) Deception reigns! Fortunately voices are gradually (if only occasionally) being raised by newspaper or magazine columnists that this approach is having disastrous effects, and we will have to face some of these things as we progress down the path of redemption. For some, sex comes by computer screen and is called pornography but all that does is stimulate mind and body in ways that are less than God had in mind with His design for couples.

Wandering in the Desert: My feeling about all these things that are rising up in the Western world, is that they are expressions of life in the wilderness or the desert, life that is arid and where people are resorting to things outside the parameters of  God’s design for human beings, to try to make sense of this crazy godless world, and try to find pleasure in it, yet trying by eating more and more, or drinking more and more, or having more and more sex, simply works on what economists call ‘the law of diminishing returns’. As any junkie would tell you, you need more and more to get the same pleasure. But we’re not meant to live in deserts; the truth is that at the edge of every desert is a wonderful world that is lush and green and full of good things. This ‘desert living’ is what God seeks to deliver us from and so perhaps we should move on in the next study and move away from the depressing area (when you have eyes to see it) of the desperate scrabbling for pleasure and meaning that is so prevalent in modern Western society. So let’s move out of the desert and see the world that the Lord seeks to deliver us in to.

And So? But before we do that, let’s go right back to the beginning and remind ourselves what Paul has been saying: don’t base your life on desires or emotions, there is a better way. It is a way that is first and foremost founded on a relationship with the Lord and out of that relationship we live according to His design parameters and know His blessing in all aspect of our lives. His word, His will, His way, His wonder, and all these bring light and life and blessing and goodness, and that is what He is working to lead us towards in this path of redemption. He HAS redeemed us from that old life of self-orientation, of self-pleasures, self-concerns, self-desires, self-based-emotions, and He is now in the process of redeeming us on a daily basis into a new world. We’ll see more on to that in the next study.

24. Sins Gone

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 24. Sins Gone

1 Pet 2:24  “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

I am sure we so often read verses of Scripture and just don’t pause to think exactly what it is that we are reading. This verse above is absolutely amazing in what it says. The first phrase, as with what follows, is clearly a quote from Isa 53. But note carefully.

First, “he himself bore our sins in his body.” The emphasis is on his physical body being killed on the wooden cross. It is a mysterious phrase. I have written on this before, but it bears repeating. Many years ago, I was asked to speak at a youth service at Easter and so I sought for a visual aid through which to communicate. I produced a cross with a figure hanging on it. Nothing special there. I then copied the picture but took a black felt-marker pen and scribbled all over the area of the body so that the body could hardly be seen. The black, I explained were all of our sins being heaped on Jesus as he hung there. It was like they were being given to him, attributed to him, carried by him; it’s like they covered him, soaked into him, become one with him: he was the guilty sinner of the world. Now there is much more we could say about that picture and it is just a visual aid to try and make some sense of this incredible imagery in this verse.

Second, the effect of that, seen in the middle of the verse, is that all those sins and indeed the power of sin have been taken by Jesus and they are no longer ‘on us’.  Because we have been given a completely new and fresh start and because we are now indwelt by his Spirit, the power of Sin in us has been broken. To say we might “die to sins” means their attractive, drawing power no longer has any say in our lives. We are free to live righteously.

Third, there is this mysterious phrase at the end, that comes from Isaiah, “by his wounds you have been healed.” So often his death and resurrection are used as a parallel to what happens spiritually to us when we come to him, but here ‘being wounded’ is contrasted with ‘being healed’. On the cross he was ‘wounded’ – beaten and nailed – and it resulted in his death. The effect of his work on the cross was that in so many ways, we are ‘healed’. Whereas we lived dysfunctional lives, now they have been made orderly and good. Whereas we were out of kilter with God, now we have been reconciled to Him and He to us. Whereas we were at odds with ourselves and with other people, now we have been brought into a place of peace and harmony, and it is all because of what Jesus achieved on the cross. We say we are ‘redeemed’ and that includes all these things, achieved by Christ.

47. Death Reasons

Focus on Christ Meditations: 47.  Death Reasons

Jn 11:49,50   Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

Mt 1:21  “Joseph …. you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

The two verses above summarise the two sets of reasons for the death of Jesus Christ. It was no accident but a purposeful event. We will deal first with the human reasons which we have really already touched upon in the previous study as we saw in Mark’s Gospel those arrayed against Jesus (Mk 3:6, 11:18, 14:1, 27:1). When we look behind those specific verses we see the opposition came because a) Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Mk 3) and thus violated what they saw as their Law, b) he overturned the market in the temple (Mk 11) and thus challenged their spirituality, c) he was present in the city at Passover (Mk 14) after a triumphal entry and was a potential threat to peace, and d) under interrogation he claimed to be the Christ, the Son of God, and the prophetic Son of Man, all of which wrong-footed them and challenged their entire existence!

The threat was made clear in John where, before our verse above and after the raising of Lazarus, we read, some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (Jn 11:46-48) As far as they were concerned, the fact that he was performing miracles was a problem not a blessing because it meant the crowd were following him, and they had a potential uprising on their hands which they saw could mean the Romans cracking down on them. This was actually a very realistic assessment because it was after rebellion that, in AD70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in it, which has never been rebuilt.

So those were the humans reasons – jealousy, fear and maybe even guilt. But there is an interlinking we should note of the divine AND human wills. Peter understood this under the anointing of the Holy Spirit as he preached on the Day of Pentecost: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) These religious leaders, and indeed the Jews who were there on that day who had cried out for Barabbas to be released and Jesus be crucified, these were the human cause of Jesus’ death. And yet there was something far bigger behind their actions – “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge”. At least seven times in the New Testament there are references to the fact of all this having been planned by the Godhead before the foundation of the world. God knew that sinful religious people, aided and abetted by the people and the Romans, if put under pressure, would rise up in their Sin and reject and crucify His Son.

That has to lead us on to the final part, the Divine Purpose behind Jesus’ death. It is strange that the prophets were largely silent on this aspect of his ministry. Yes, they saw the coming virgin child being a great leader who would usher in the kingdom of God, but the work of the Cross is largely absent from their words and writings, only understood in hindsight.

The prophetic servant songs of Isaiah speak of the coming one bringing justice (e.g. Isa 42:4) and indeed he will do great things of delivering prisoners (42:7) and He will make him the basis of a new covenant and a light for the rest of the world (42:6), but no mention of death. Even in Isa 52,53 where we have previously considered, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed,” (53:5), if we are honest we have to see it is not clearly spelled out. Even in the amazing Psalm 22 we can now see with hindsight, so much that applies to Christ dying on the Cross, but its original readers must have been confused at its lack of clarity. So yes, there were prophetic hints but that is all they were.

When we come to the Gospels we have these general words, “he will save his people from their sins,” but even John does not spell it out and just relies on the facts of what happened, but virtually nothing about the why. It is almost as if the Godhead wanted to largely keep to themselves – at the time – what they are doing, because it is for THEIR benefit first and foremost, and only then for our benefit.

Now I hope that doesn’t sound heretical but it is true that the divine reasons for Christ’s death are not fully spelled out until at least twenty years after his death. Yet Jesus himself, on the road to Emmaus, chided the two anguishing disciples, saying, “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:26) Indeed Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Micah and Malachi all said many things about ‘the Coming One’ but there is still little or nothing about the Cross.

The apostle Paul in his great letter to the Romans first explains about God’s anger against unpunished sin which covers both Jew and Gentile (ch.1-3) and then declares, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:25,26) The footnote in v.25 offers instead of ‘sacrifice of atonement’,  “as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin.” But look at the reasoning: “to demonstrate his justice”.

To justify us – to put us right with Himself, so that the estranged human race could have the possibility of coming back to God in a living and loving relationship with God – justice which demands wrong doing be punished, must be satisfied and so God satisfied it (and Satan’s accusations) by taking the punishment in Himself in the form of His Son.

The apostle John wrote the same thing of Christ: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:2) The apostle Peter wrote, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Pet 3:18) I will leave you to peruse the letter to the Hebrews where Jesus is portrayed not only as the high priest who brings us to God, but also as the sacrifice for sins in the same way that animals were sacrificed for sins in the Old Testament era. In Revelation 5 we see Jesus as the Lamb of God standing before the throne of his Father while all heaven sings, “you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Justice is satisfied, the universe is at peace, sinful mankind can return to God because the Christ has died in our place. This is the will of God for us to receive. Hallelujah!

13. A Most Remarkable Dream

Focus on Christ Meditations: 13.  A Most Remarkable Dream

Mt 1:20-21   an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

We have been pursuing the sense of mystery that is there in Scripture about the coming, the person, the life, and the work of Christ. This started with the apostle Paul’s use of this word mystery as applied to Christ and to the Gospel and I have suggested from the outset that familiarity in many of us means we have lost the sense or awareness of this mystery, and so I have been seeking to regain it in these studies. We started with some of the prophecies from the Old Testament which was, I suggest, what Paul was mostly referring to when he spoke of the mystery. However, as we moved into the New Testament I have suggested that when we look with fresh eyes we will catch a similar sense in respect of all of the things we find there in the early accounts of his coming.

We did this with Simeon and the Magi, who were the earliest of those who were aware of his coming, and then we considered the mystery of choosing shepherds to announce the news of his coming. From that we pondered on why God should choose Zechariah knowing he was likely to respond negatively as he did, and then finally considered the subject of why a virgin birth. It is with the same approach in mind that we now consider the nature and content of Joseph’s dream.

To do this properly we need to first note the historical context, if we may put it like that, what was going on before the dream came. Basic facts. 1. Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” (v.18a)  2. “Before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18b)  3. “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) That’s where we have got to and we’ve already considered bits of this as we considered the ‘virgin birth’ question.

When the angel appears to Joseph in the dream it is obviously so vivid that he sees it as the message from God that it is, and follows the instructions within it. Now a dream with an angel in isn’t particularly mysterious; it is what is in the angelic communication that we so often take for granted. He first of all reassures Joseph (v.20) that, no, she hasn’t been with another man, it truly is a miracle, the fact that she is carrying a baby, it is a sovereign work of God, enabled by the Holy Spirit. OK, end of reassurance, he could have stopped there, but he doesn’t.

See the all-important v.21: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now in your Bible there will probably be a footnote after the word ‘Jesus’ that explains, ‘Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the LORD saves.’   Now we find a shorthand version of what we saw in the Isa 61 prophecy, fulfilled in Lk 4 that we saw in study 7 on the Anointed Servant. The purpose of the one we have referred to simply as ‘the Coming One’ is to save people, but now we stumble over yet another mystery. In the Isa 61 prophecy the ‘saving’ was in respect of the poor… the brokenhearted…. the captives and … the prisoners. The angel now says he will save his people from their sins. What does that actually mean?

How easily we hear it when we hear this story read at Christmas, but what does it actually mean? Were the descriptions in Isa 61 descriptions about sin? Are we captive to Sin, prisoners or Sin? Is the result that we are poor (spiritually) and brokenhearted (in the anguish that the life of sin brings with it)? Here is the mystery of the words of the dream and purpose of the Coming One.

In retrospect, with the whole canon of Scripture before us we can venture answers to this question, what does it mean that the Christ saves us from our sins? The starting point has to be that since the Fall every single human being (except Jesus) is tainted with this thing called Sin, this propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to unrighteousness. This unrighteousness is expressed as sins, individual wrong thoughts, wrong words or wrong deeds. We were, before we came to Christ, a prisoner to this Sin, hence the apostle Paul’s words in Rom 7, leading to the conclusion that we were helpless (unable to change ourselves) and hopeless (there was no hope of a different future). That was our state from which Christ came to save us.

How did he do that? Let’s be as simple as possible and for the sake of space forgive me if I don’t justify these three declarations with lots of verses; they are there. First because of our state (in Sin) and our actions (sins) we inherently feel guilty. There is a question of our guilt and shame needing to be dealt with. Second, there is the fact of our guilt; we don’t only feel guilty deep down, we are guilty. That needs dealing with. Third, we are powerless to change; we are as we said, helpless and hopeless, and that needs dealing with. So how does Jesus death on the Cross deal with these three things?

The divine plan was that his death was to be seen as punishment satisfying justice for each and every sin we have ever and will ever commit. All God asks of us initially is to believe that. It is the means of dealing with the second of those three issues – our guilt. As far as justice is now concerned everything we have ever done or will ever do wrong, has been resolved, the punishment has been taken. When we come to God in repentance we are instantly ‘justified’, declared right in the eyes of heaven. As part of the whole process we are also adopted by God into His family, we have a new status, children of God, and as such all our shame and guilt, the first issue, are gone. As part of the whole process God puts His Holy Spirit into our lives, we become indwelt by the Spirit and He within us is the new power source (see end of Rom 7 and beginning of Rom 8), so together the new identity that we have and the new power source within, release us to live new God-directed and God-blessed lives, with an eternal future. We ARE saved! Hallelujah!

THIS is what was wrapped up in those few simple but utterly dramatic words of mystery that Joseph received in his dream – he will save his people from their sins. That was why he came, this is what he has done and this is what we are now experiencing. Hallelujah! How wonderful this mystery now revealed! Is there any point in continuing this series? Oh yes, now we will start seeing how it was all worked out in time-space history, now we will go on to see more of who this Coming One really is, and what he came to do.  Yes!!!!

8. He’s Alive?

Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 8.  He’s Alive?

Lk 24:2,3    They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

It is Sunday, Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday.  Whatever I write today will be inadequate. From that perspective I wrote about yesterday, of two thousand years of hindsight, I am convinced that so much of the time we just skim over the accounts of the first day of the week rather like we skim over the evening news on TV. It comes and goes. It may be terrible and for a moment or two we may be moved. It may be wonderful and for a moment or two we rejoice but as they say in the news world, the news cycle is incredibly short these days and so today’s news will be superseded by a new batch in a day or so. Is that how we will treat this incredible day? May it not be so. I have sought, during this week, to face the realities of what happened and why, in broad terms, rarely focusing on individual scriptures but seeking to capture the big picture. I want that for today especially.

Today we rejoice in our celebration services and so often it all seems so sure and so clear. For those involved, there on the ground in Jerusalem, I suggest, it was utterly confusing. If I may cite again, for I have used this story many times over the years, the illustration I came across a number of years ago, it might shed some light. Some people I knew, leaders of the church grouping of which I was part, went out to Africa to see for themselves the reality of accounts that had been coming of an amazing healing ministry that was going on in one country.

I will never forget one of the things they said: “For the first four days we struggled as our minds desperately sought to catch up with what our eyes were seeing.”  So dramatic and so incredible were the healings they witnessed, hundreds every day I believe, that their minds just could not cope with what they were seeing. For example, bodies changing shape in front of their eyes as God healed and straightened out broken and distorted limbs, and so much more.

Now imagine you were one of the people who were there two thousand years ago. We saw Jesus broken and bleeding body taken down from the Cross, utterly pale, no question, dead! And now standing before me is this man I have followed for three years and he doesn’t look an invalid even, and he is well and truly alive, and smiling at me. I think if I was me, I would have burst into floods of tears at the relief, once I passed the stage of believing it is him and he is alive. I often say that when it comes to the loss of a loved one through crippling old age perhaps, we should not feel guilt about having a feeling of relief mixed in with our mourning for loss. Sometimes death brings a sense of relief; this terrible ordeal is at least over. Now if that is so over a death, I wonder what it would be like when the person we feared was gone, proves to still be with us?

There are many questions over the accounts of the things leading up to the crucifixion and his death and resurrection, but that is not surprising. These close followers of Jesus have just been through the most dramatic three years of their lives as they have followed him around Galilee transforming the lives of thousands. It has been the greatest roller-coaster ride in history.

The biggest question has been “How?” followed by “Who?” Answers have not always been clear. Then come the events of Passion Week that we have sought to briefly reflect upon this week. It was confusing, often hostile, frequently chaotic; the fact is that these were incredibly tumultuous times and so although the facts are all there, they are a) not always there in their entirety and so b) the order is not always abundantly clear.

I did warn at the beginning that whatever I wrote would be inadequate. What I seek to suggest is that these events are so tumultuous and mind blowing that it is probable that if we could time travel back there with a bunch of psychiatrists, I am fairly certain they would diagnose most of Jesus’ followers as suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome. However many words Jesus spoke when teaching his disciples beforehand, nothing would ever truly prepare them for the emotions that would accompany the events we have been considering this week. And therein is the ring of truth.

If the four Gospel accounts had been precisely the same and neatly and orderly spelled out these events, I would be seriously suspicious about their veracity. These slightly shambolic records (at times at least) say, “This is true! This is what really happened.” And if it did, why did it? Well I have been desperately trying to catch a sense of reality about what went on in this week, but now we come to the words so often and so easily spoken in church: “Jesus died on the Cross to take the punishment for your sins.” Do I believe it? Utterly! Do I understand it? In general terms, as far as the words are all familiar words, yes, in a measure. Beyond that, if I am honest, and I have sought to be this week, not really. I struggle to comprehend my need (hence some of the earlier meditations) and I certainly struggle to understand how awful it must have been for Jesus to do what he did, and therefore how he could love you and me so much that he still went through with it.

The best I can do is say, I will declare it as the truth and that truth I comprehend more clearly on some days than on others – but I will live by that truth and trust that truth, and my knowledge of God, accumulated over nearly fifty years of following Him, says He is content and pleased with that. That truth opens up a doorway to a life in which I can experience the love and the goodness and the grace and the power and the wisdom of God on a daily basis. On a good day it is brilliant, and on a bad day, it is still the truth. And it is all like that today because nearly two thousand years ago in time-space history Jesus went through the things we have been considering this week, and he did it for you and me. And he rose from the dead and a whole new world opened up! Amazing! Staggering! Incredible! Wonderful! Hallelujah!

5. Leviticus (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 5.  Leviticus (1)

Lev 4:2,3  Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands …. he must bring to the LORD a … sin offering for the sin he has committed.

For many people the book of Leviticus is a no-go area, a book of strange practices, practices that verge on horrible things, at least according to the modern mind, Thus we write the book off or shy away from it and certainly don’t expect to find any ‘highlights’ in it. However our two verses above present us with something that we, as Christians, may take for granted, and the unbelieving world fail to see as of any relevance, but for those with a mind to use, a necessity.

It is all about failure and restoration. Do you see the starting point: “When anyone sins.” Now of course the modern world denies there is such a thing as sin and denies the existence of God, but that is more to allow them freedom to do whatever they like than for any intellectual reason. My definition of ‘Sin’ is “self-centred godlessness that leads to unrighteous thoughts, words or deeds”, and there is a lot of that in our world!

But this goes to the root of the entire teaching of the Bible. Summing it up as a big picture, if you like, we might say, there is a God who created all things and made them perfect, including the first human beings. However, when He gave them free will they used it to express their self-centred desire that was godless in its outlook (they pretended God was not there and would not mind, that is what is behind their thinking in Gen 3, at least for a few seconds). That was sin and human beings (every single human being) has been doing that ever since.

But here’s the thing: God holds each and every person accountable for what they think, say or do. He respects our personal individuality that enables us to choose the sort of person we will be and what we will do. Yet, He says of everything that is contrary to His original design, that is Sin. You weren’t made to be like that. Now a long study that I have made over several years suggests that, contrary to popular belief, God is not so much concerned about punishing sinful acts (although justice demands that wrongs be punished and dealt with) as delivering us or changing us so we stop living like that and are able to return to the original design which involves being at peace with ourselves, and with one another, and with Him, as we live out love and goodness.

If we take the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) as a starting place, we see a certain set of rules for living that can apply to all of mankind. The Ten Commandments are so general that they can apply to any person on earth. The first commands are about relationship with God but if we go to the second half we find such simple commands as don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery etc., rules or laws which any person in their right mind would say are wisdom for a peaceful and harmonious society which, we would all aspire to on a good day. But following those ten commandments, come a series of other laws (in the following few chapters of Exodus) that put more detail to living out life in an agricultural and somewhat basic society, under God – that of Israel – with many more ‘guide-lines’ to be followed to achieve that peaceful and harmonious society that we just referred to.  (And remember that that is the basic purpose of God’s rules, the Laws of Moses).

But then comes this amazing understanding on the Lord’s part, “‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands.” The Lord knows we are prone to failure but He doesn’t get all upset about it, He simply provides a way for human beings who do get it wrong, to get back into a good place with Him. The assumption was clearly that He expected His people, who had entered into covenant with Him, to not want to break the laws but live by them to create that peaceful and harmonious society, and yet we all of us stumble and trip over our feet, so to speak, and get it wrong from time to time – and the Lord understands that! It is what we think and feel when we come to our senses and realise we have done wrong is what He is concerned about. He assumes repentance, a change of heart and mind, and a desire to put things right, but how could they do that in respect of God.

The incredibly simple answer is the law of sacrifices that we find in the early chapters of Leviticus. Now we all like to ‘make up’ by doing something after we have sinned. Some of us try to make up to God by going to church, or by doing charitable service or a whole variety of other things, all designed to get on God’s good side. But we are still expressing our self-centred outlook when we do that.

The Lord says, simply come the way I have provided, it is so much easier! For the Israelites it was simply to bring an animal to be sacrificed, i.e. put to death and presented to God. That action would certainly have added a serious dimension to this act, it was no mere casual performance. Often you, the offender, had to put the creature to death in front of the priest and as you saw it die you would have realised it was your sin that deprived this creature of its life and that would help you determine never to fail in that way again.

Since Jesus gave his life on the Cross, as a one-off sacrifice for our sins, we do not have to make such sacrifices, but perhaps the sacrifice we have to present is that self-centred desire to make ourselves good. No we cannot make ourselves good, only He can do that. All we can do is believe that Jesus died for us, died for my Sin (to set me free from that inherent tendency to be self-centred and godless) and for my individual sins, all those myriads of times when I have thought, said or done wrong. Justice has been satisfied and I must lay down ‘self’ that wants to still DO something to appease God. No, He has been appeased by Jesus’ death.   He just wants my belief in that – and of course when we do, all other things follow – our thoughts, our words and our deeds; we are transformed, and this is His desire for us, that we may be blessed by these new lives we live.

No, these verses in Leviticus are indeed highlights; they reveal a God of understanding, a God of compassion and care, a God who wants our restoration more than anything else. Isn’t that incredible!

15. Forgiven

Meditations in Colossians 2: 15:  Forgiven

Col 2:13,14    He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

Paul is listing off what has happened to us, starting with being made spiritually alive and now by us being forgiven. Perhaps the matter of our forgiveness is almost so simple that many of us take is for granted, or we don’t appreciate the wonder of it. It is foundational to the teaching of the New Testament  and it could be argued that it is the most important issue of our salvation.

When Joseph was told in a dream that his Mary was going to have a baby, he was told, She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21). Dealing with sins was clearly at the heart of the work of Jesus. Forgiveness of sins was emphasised through the ministry of John the Baptist as his father prophesied over him as a baby, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” (Lk 1:76,77) Thus we find when he was grown up, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk 3:2,3)

Now strangely it does not feature strongly in Jesus’ ministry; he is more concerned to emphasise the coming of the kingdom. When it came to the Cross he simply majored on what was to happen, not on why: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18,19) it is only as he approached his death did he start to spell it out: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” (Mt 26:28) and then after he was raised, on the road to Emmaus, we find, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations,” (Lk 24:45-47)

That was fulfilled as on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 3:38) and then later, “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel,” (Acts 5:31) and then to the first Gentile believers, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

Forgiveness of our sins is THE great thing that opens the way for us to have a relationship with God. From our point of view, we feel guilty and fear the wrath and judgment of God and so being told that we are forgiven gives us the hope of something more wonderful. From God’s point of view, it is possible because Jesus has taken the punishment that justice demands and so the way is open for Him to receive us.

But Paul says, “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us.”  Prior to Jesus death, the Law of Moses stood as God’s requirement of righteousness but the trouble was we could never perfectly keep all God’s laws. Paul spells that out in Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom 7:15)  He explains further, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:18,19)

Earlier he had explained this in respect of the Law: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.” (Rom 7:7,8) As soon as a prohibition was put before us, we found something rise up within us that wanted to do it. That was Sin.  When you focus on your guilt, it just makes it more hard to stop it – and then Jesus comes along and forgives us and the guilt is dealt with. He takes our eyes off the rules and puts them on him.

Paul concludes in respect of Jesus’ work, “he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”  It’s like Jesus took all the demands and nailed them to the Cross as if to say, ”Dealt with!  Paid!  End of story!”  Every time Satan whispers to you, “You are a guilty sinner,” point him towards the Cross and say, “Yes, that’s right but Jesus has dealt with it!”

When we came to Christ we sought his forgiveness – and received it, once and for all. Yes, it is right to confess and say sorry for individual incidents where you stumble and get it wrong, but Jesus HAS dealt with the  big issue of your guilt. Hallelujah!

10. The Word of Truth

Meditations in Colossians: 10. The Word of Truth

Col 1:4-6   we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints– the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.

We are familiar with understanding the word ‘Gospel’ to mean Good News but here Paul also calls it “the word of truth” and it is worth pondering on the meaning of that. In prophetic circles we speak of someone receiving “a word”. We don’t mean that they have received a single word but that they have received a collection of words – from  a sentence to a whole collection of say ten paragraphs – that form a message from God. But note also that when Paul describes this word he calls it “the word”. It is not just a word which would make it just one among many but it is a single unique message from God and there is no other message like it. But more than that, it is the message of truth which implies that it is a unique message that somehow encapsulates all that is vital in and for life.

Truth? That which conforms to reality, which is exactly true and does not in any way deviate from that which is. So here, says Paul, we have this unique message from God that conveys or sums up the will of God, the reality of the plans and purposes of God. You want to know if there is a God? Ponder on the Gospel message, Could this just be the planning of human beings or has it got an origin that goes beyond us?  What sort of God is there if there is one?  Ponder on the Gospel and see a God of infinite compassion, a God of love and mercy who plans from before the beginning of time to redeem mankind that has abused its free will and got into slavery to this thing called Sin, this inescapable propensity of godless self-centredness.  You wonder if there is any escape from this self-centred godlessness that seems to lead to unrighteousness and self-destructive thinking and behaviour?  After you realise that our state is helpless and thus hopeless, we hear the Gospel and grasp for it like a drowning person.

This word tells the truth? Listen to Paul elsewhere: Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved……  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:1-4) There was the Gospel encapsulated.

It is all about Christ who the Gospels reveal is the unique Son of God who came to earth from heaven. Here he lived, growing from a baby to an adult and then at about the age of thirty started three years of the most remarkable ministry that the word has ever seen. The apostle Peter described him in his first sermon to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, first in human terms: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) Later he said the same thing to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38).

That is all implied in Paul’s summary and is a prerequisite to the fundamentals of why Christ came: “Christ died for our sins.” Peter spelled it out again and again: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him,” (Acts 2:23,24 to the Jews at Pentecost) and “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead….. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10,12 before the religious leaders) and “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen….. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39,40,43 to the Gentiles)

But the outworking brought so much more. We have seen the facts (the truth) of what happened – Jesus came, revealed the Father, was crucified and rose from the dead, all, we are told, the means to bring about the forgiveness of our sins. That is what HE did but then there is OUR response and then what HE does as a response to us! Our response, to the conviction by His Holy Spirit, is to surrender to Him, believe in Jesus (an early act of faith) and receive what he then imparts – forgiveness, cleansing, adoption and the impartation of what becomes the indwelling Holy Spirit in our lives. Thus we are ‘born again’, made new, and He reveals a plan and purpose for our lives that we live out in our remaining years here on earth.  But it doesn’t stop there. We have received eternal life and the guarantee of a glorious future with Him in heaven after life on this earth. This is the package that we call the Gospel. This is what has happened to Jesus (it is true!) and this is what has happened to us (it is true!)  This is the word of truth.. Hallelujah!

14. Jesus, the Ultimate Gem

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  14. Jesus the ultimate gem

Mat 1:20,21  “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

The name Jesus or Jeshua was fairly common and is akin to Joshua of the Old Testament and it means deliverer. The thing about this particular baby, this particular Jesus, was that he would not deliver people in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. The claim of the angel speaking to Joseph in a dream was that this Jesus would come and do something that no other person on earth could do, he would deliver people from their sins. Now when we think about that we realise that it must mean that he will deliver them from the guilt and punishment that their sins deserve AND he will deliver them from the actual sins, from continuing to do them. That is what salvation through Christ does, and just in case you have never seen it like that before, let’s repeat it: he delivers form the guilt and punishment of sins AND from the ongoing having to continue to sin. The first is what puts us right with God and the second is the life we live out subsequently with Him. This, as briefly as possible, is what Jesus has come to achieve, and he has done it for millions and millions of people.

How, again as briefly as possible, did he go on to do it, this? There were two parts to his ministry. First of all, for three years he lived out a period of ministry from about the age of thirty, revealing his Heavenly Father’s nature. In the words of the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, he was revealed as a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him,” (Acts 2:22)  Later on, to Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends Peter declared, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)  Jesus himself had declared to John’s disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) In the things he did he revealed Himself as a unique being.

Three times his Father testified to the wonder of who he was. First at his own baptism, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16,17)  The second was on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7) The third time appears to have been on Palm Sunday, as recorded by John, “Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” (Jn 12:28,29)

The second part of his ministry was dying on the Cross to take the punishment for our sins. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed this to happen: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) Also “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18,19) He spelled out the purpose of this at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28) The apostle Peter also spelled this out: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” (Acts 5:30,31) God raised Jesus from the dead and then took him back to heaven with him, confirming who he was and his purpose.

This is the unique ministry of Jesus Christ, the revealed Son of God. After he ascended and returned to sit next to his Father in heaven, ruling at His side, we find there are three people who saw him there. First there was Stephen just before he was stoned to death as the first Christian martyr (see Acts 7:56). The second was Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6) and the third was the apostle John in his revelation on the isle of Patmos. In the first part of the vision he saw Jesus as the one holding the seven churches of Asia Minor in his hands – the Lord of the Church (Rev 1:12-18). In the next part of the vision he saw him before the throne of heaven, as the Lamb of God, the Saviour of the world (Rev 5:5-10).  In the latter part of Revelation he saw him as the returning conquering king (Rev 19:11-16).

So when Joseph gets this message from the angel in a dream, we have all this wrapped up in a short description. The wonder of the New Testament is that being opened up and revealed to us in much greater detail. Of all of the gems we might find in the Bible, this surely has to shine the brightest.